Japanese athletes tend to be known more for their consistency and teamwork, than for individual acts of heroism.  You wouldn’t expect Major League All-Star Ichiro Suzuki to crank a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth, but you can count on him to bat .300 year-after-year and to play near flawless defense in right field.

This year a different type of Japanese sports star emerged from the unlikeliest of places-a local government office near Tokyo.  In his dark suit and tie, Yuki Kawauchi may be just a modest civil servant, but he is also a world class marathon runner.  In Japan, elite runners are sponsored by big corporations, like Toyota and Hitachi, and given access to the best coaches, nutrition and equipment.   All of their time is spent training, resting and preparing for the next big race.  Kawauchi has chosen to forego this seemingly preferable option and instead works full time in an office and trains alone in his free time.

Last February, I was one of 35,000 runners to take part in the Tokyo Marathon.  The race was used to determine who would represent Japan in the World Championships.  Kawauchi wasn’t one of the favorites, but that didn’t stop him from putting in an incredibly gutsy performance.  For the first 20 miles he remained within striking distance of the leaders and then with less than 2 miles to go he cranked it up until his face looked like a death mask of pain.  He fought his way into third place and just barely held on to become to first Japanese finisher in 2 hours and 8 minutes.  After crossing the finish line, he collapsed and had to be taken away on a wheelchair.  This was Kawauchi’s sixth marathon and the fifth time he ended up in the medical tent.  In a post-race interview he said, “Every time I run, it’s with the mindset that if I die at this race it’s OK.”

The Japanese media ignored the first two finishers from Ethiopia and instead focused all of their attention on Kawauchi, who they dubbed the “Citizen Runner.”  A story surfaced that Kawauchi had brought a suit to the marathon, so he could go straight to work afterwards and catch up on some paperwork.  The next day when every major media outlet tried to get an interview with the elusive Citizen Runner, Kawauchi simply turned off his phone so he wouldn’t be distracted while at work.  He gave the prize-winning BMW to his mother, and when she turned it down, he then sold it to raise money for the tsunami relief effort.  The Japanese Athletic Association was a bit apprehensive about having someone represent the country who had basically thumbed his nose at their system.  However, their hands were tied after the whole country fell in love with this amateur underdog.

Front page of a Tokyo newspaper

Despite being offered many attractive sponsorship opportunities, Kawauchi has continued to work for the Saitama Prefecture government and train in his free time.  Unlike most elite runners, he trains without a coach and races frequently.  His do-or-die approach to racing resulted in some disastrous performances.  At a 50K ultramarathon in June, he collapsed 600 meters from the finish and had to be hospitalized for heat stroke.  In August, he represented Japan in the World Championships and was on the silver medal winning team, even though  individually he finished a disappointing 18th in the marathon.  Rumors began to circulate that his performance at the Tokyo Marathon was an anomaly and that the Citizen Runner may not have what it takes to be a part of next year’s Olympic squad.

This year the Japanese Athletic Association designated three races as qualifiers for the 2012 Olympic marathon team.  The Fukuoka Marathon on December 4th was the first.  Most of the big name Japanese runners chose to focus on just one of these races.  Kawauchi, of course, signed up for all three.  At Fukuoka, he started out a bit slow, just like he did in Tokyo, but then patiently started to reel in the competition.  A pair of front-running Kenyans pulled away from the field, while Kawauchi focused on picking off the Japanese runners.  With just 3 miles to go, the only one who stood between him and a third place finish was pre-race favorite, Masato Imai.  Kawauchi snuck up on Imai, who was alerted of the attack when a fan yelled, “Go Kawauchi!”  These two battled it out, going back-and-forth, swapping positions, until Imai couldn’t take it any longer.  Kawauchi crossed the line in 2:09, the first Japanese finisher and in third place overall.  His impressive performance will hopefully secure himself a spot in the 2012 London Olympics.

It’s all too common these days to hear athletes claim to have, “given it their all,” but I wonder, how many actually do?  Kawauchi is a rare breed that really does give it all he’s got, every time he straps on a pair of racing flats.  I think it’s cool that our role models are not assigned to us, but rather chosen by us.  And while I totally respect the hard work and dedication of most professional runners, I’d much rather have as a role model someone who understands what it’s like to put in 40+ hours a week at job, AND THEN try to squeeze in a quality workout.  Kawauchi is a true marathon champion, but he is also one of us, a part of the working masses, and that’s the reason he is my role model and my hero.